Web-based resources for communication in EFL classes provide a communicative environment where students can use English to interact with people beyond the classroom walls. However, the potential benefits may not be reaped unless due consideration is given to students with limited computer experience (vis-à-vis cell phones), and those with negative feelings toward using or learning English. In April 2011, we began a three-year Kaken grant funded study called Developing Practice Models for ICT-Integrated EFL Instruction Centred on Production and Exchange. At the beginning of the project we asked ourselves these questions:
- What could be the challenges to integrating technology into the EFL classroom in Japan?
- How can we overcome these challenges?
- What could be an effective instructional model for integrating technology into EFL classes in Japan?
By finding answers to these questions we hope to identify which technologies are best for our students to use in order to practice English for communicative purposes. We will then propose practical ways that other teachers in Japan can integrate technology into their EFL classes, especially where there is limited access to ICT in the classroom. In this article we’ll share some of the things we’ve discovered over the first year of our study.
Challenges to integrating technology into the EFL classroom in Japan
The most obvious challenge to integrating technology into the EFL classroom is the set up of most classrooms in Japan. Many classrooms still have just a chalkboard and rows of desks, which makes giving students opportunities for hands-on practice very difficult. Furthermore, our own experience over the years, and studies including Murray and Blyth (2011) show that some students are not comfortable using computers, and even those students who are may have limited computer literacy.
Another challenge is choosing which tools to use. The most important factor when teachers choose a technology is their own readiness to use it. Students won’t be comfortable using the tool if the teacher isn’t comfortable using it. Other factors to consider are accessibility and ease of use. For Japanese students, tools that can be accessed using a mobile phone are best. While the number of tools like this
isis limited, more and more students are getting smartphones. and the range of tools accessible via smart phones isis growing day by day. As for ease of use, teachers even need to be aware of whether a site requires registration and log in. Many students don’t like the bother of registration and log in. Many students forget their log in details too.
There is also the challenge of finding people for students to communicate with online. While random strangers can, and do, comment on blogs and other sites, it would be unwise to rely on this happening for a variety of reasons including safety. This means that teachers need to arrange projects and exchanges. Projects and exchanges with other classes in Japan are easiest, but are these the people our students want to communicate with in English? Projects and exchanges with overseas classes can be problematic because of different academic calendars and different time zones. Finally, we have a paradox: many students are unable to reach a desirable level of English proficiency because they lack meaningful opportunities to practice English. While the Internet can provide opportunities for students to practice using English, the public nature of the Internet may scare them away from taking these opportunities.
Overcoming these challenges
At JALT2011, we reported on the use of Moodle, a virtual learning environment (VLE) with first and second year false beginner level students at Chiba University of Commerce (CUC) in 2010. A survey of the students found that for many students Moodle was either difficult to use or a hassle to use outside the classroom: some said they wanted to use their feature phone for online discussion. Moodle had limited mobile phone compatibility.Despite the accessibility problem the students said that they enjoyed doing online activities once they got used to them. However, many students also wanted to do grammar or vocabulary exercises using Moodle, suggesting that more language-focused tasks, coupled with communicative activities, might help increase student participation in online activities. Based on what was learned with this group of students, we came up with a plan for our classes beginning in the spring of 2011.
We decided to start by trying out blogs that students could post to using their mobile phones. The classes at Toyo Gakuen University (Togaku) were held in a CALL Room. The classes at CUC, held in a regular classroom, used iPads and the students’ own mobile phones. We tried two different platforms, Blogger (with the CUC classes) and Posterous (with the Togaku class). Twitter, a microblogging platform, was also used with the Togaku class. One of the most interesting results was that the Togaku class selected Twitter as the preferred platform for communicative exchange activities. Indeed, some students in this class are still using Twitter, even though the term has ended and they have already been assigned a grade. On the other hand, these students who loved using Twitter only used Posterous when asked to. At CUC, student participation increased compared to the 2010 fall semester. They found blogging in English was helpful to improve their English, appreciated opportunities to express themselves in English, and were happy with in-class language-focused activity using their posts. However, their blogging activities were not very interactive at this stage, which posed another challenge.
In the next stage we set up another blog called Connected Classrooms for interclass blogging. Classes in five universities participated: Togaku, CUC, Tokyo Metropolitan University, Soka University, and Osaka Prefectural University. Students posted to the blog using either computers or mobile phones both inside and outside of the classroom. To prompt conversation we posted slide shows made using Voicethread. We also gave the students assignments to complete using Voicethread and YouTube.
Meanwhile, we surveyed 173 students at Togaku and CUC to investigate how our students use technology. It showed their overall preference for mobile phones over computers, which was consistent with our previous findings. It also revealed that most of the students felt comfortable using a computer and almost 63% of the students use the Internet frequently, suggesting the challenge for the teacher is not general low technology use among students but differentiated instruction to accommodate those relatively few students reluctant to use computers.
We haven’t come up with an effective instructional model for integrating technology into EFL classes in Japan yet, but we have discovered some useful things about our students. Over the next two years we’ll experiment some more. After that we will be sure to share all we’ve learned.
This work was supported by a kakenhi Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (23520696) from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.
Murray, A., & Blyth, A. (2011). A survey of Japanese university students’ computer literacy levels. JALTCALL Journal, 7(3), 307-318.
- Michael Stout’s Blog for Students and Teachers: <mrstoutsblog.blogspot.com>
- Togaku Basic English 1 Writing Blog: <togakuwriting.posterous.com/#!>
- MYAM’s Class Blog: <cmyam.blogspot.com>
- What’s Up (Students’ blog) <myam2009.blogspot.com>
- Connected Classrooms: <connecteden.blogspot.com>